Teach for America Left Me

Before I graduated from college I became committed to the idea that I would never write a blog post about an organization after I left it. If it was my choice, I didn’t need to make it worse by writing about it. If it wasn’t my choice, I wouldn’t want to throw the organization under the bus. But at the time I oriented myself this way, I believed this value was at the very bottom of the list of values I might have to exercise in my lifetime.

Then I was in a car crash.

A couple of months ago, I thought my life would go back to normal after I was healed. I knew, for medical reasons, I needed to stay in Ohio so I put in a request for a transfer to Teach for America’s southwest Ohio region.

The Detroit region put my transfer through, but I still haven’t heard from the southwest Ohio region.

I have been passionate about Teach for America since my junior year of college. I have defended it and supported it a countless number of times. What this experience has taught me is that I think I was at first passionate about TFA because I have always and will always be passionate about education. So since TFA has put a roadblock in my way, I have to go around it.

I am going to the University of Dayton to get my license and masters in secondary integrated language arts.

I wasn’t going to publish this blog post. I thought it was going to sit on my computer until the end of time, but yesterday TFA reached out to me about helping them with recruiting. The person who sent the email told me she just emailed everyone on TFA’s corps member list. I haven’t heard from TFA in three months and have no idea what I am “officially” to TFA.

All of that being said, I want it to be known that I am not leaving TFA; TFA is leaving me.

“You’re Irritating:” Reflections on Anger and Patience

I remember an instance freshman year of high school where a peer was asking me a question. I don’t remember the question or why it caught me in the way it did. But I distinctly remember turning around and snapping at him, my face turning red. I can remember the heat on my face and the way the anger kind of bubbled up from my stomach and seemed to wrap itself around my heart like a tiny, evil, hate-filled dragon.

High school for me was characterized by sporadic instances of these outbursts. To do this day, I’m not entirely sure where they came from. But it was almost always a result of impatience.

I can count on one hand, though, my run-ins with anger in college. I thought this was because I am mostly an easy-going person–I am someone who is easy to get along with, I thought. I am someone that can see other view points with ease, I thought. I am someone who understands others’ problems, I thought.

And then I began to teach.

What I thought was the result of a good character was actually the result of a lack of conflict. For four years, I worked hard at a place where very little was demanded of me, where (even when I was in leadership roles) I managed very few people. I lived and studied in an environment where often my biggest conflict on any given day was if I was going to ask a girl on a date that weekend. And so when people talked to me about patience and humility and optimism, I thought well yeah, I have those.

What I’m learning now is that I was wrong about basically everything I once thought about myself. I am not naturally patient. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not naturally humble.

A student complained to me today about how I’m always angry. And I have been angry a lot lately. That tiny dragon is taking up permanent roots in my chest. I can feel him breathing fire into all the other parts of my life.

And the more I reflect on that, the more I recognize it as a problem. I don’t think I would listen to someone who was always angry. In fact, I don’t. Even if a person has interests and opinions similar to mine, it’s hard for me to take something valuable from him or her if s/he is angry. For my students, I’m some strange angry man whom they barely know who is teaching a subject matter with which they are frustrated. Of course they don’t want to listen. Of course they start tuning me out. Of course.

I’ve been waiting for my students. “I would be less angry,” I tell myself, “if my students were better behaved.”

But, my students argue, they would be better behaved if I was less angry.

My students sometimes hit each other (playfully) in the halls. It’s something I don’t get. I don’t remember so much physical contact in high school. The other day, I was talking with my class with which I have the best relationship, and a girl was complaining about how someone had playfully hit her and how she should seek retribution, and I drew a diagram on the board showing how this process was necessarily infinitely cyclical. My students thought about it carefully, and considered how always wanting revenge leads to more and more of the playful hitting, which none of them seem to really appreciate (unless they are doing the hitting).

I’m glad I could share this moment with my students, but I don’t follow this in my own daily life.  I am angry far too often. And my anger leads my students to want to be frustrated with me. And their frustration leads me to want to be frustrated and so on. If their frustration and discontent was always met with love and peacefulness and patience and humility, I think they might start thinking twice of their disruptions. Why be so mean to a person who is so nice?

Some days I think I need to teach my students how to be kind. But really, they are the ones teaching me. Their hearts are big; their memories small. I can kick a student out of class and by the end of the day, that student is able to have a productive, loving conversation with me. That’s a testament to the student, not to me. My heart is too small; my memories too big. MY memories, MY experiences, MY ego: I spend so much time thinking about these things. I never really understood how Jesus says you need to die to yourself to follow Him. I am starting to understand.

Why Edu-Blogging Is Hard As a First-Year Teacher

Last year Gary Rubinstein wrote a post about how TFA bloggers seem to disappear after the summer or after the first few months of school. At the time, I said I would be that blogger–the one who told the story of what it’s like to be a TFA corps member. But now I understand why I can’t.

Teaching is not like studying abroad. It’s not some cute little thing that I’m doing that I need to share with all of my friends and family with cute little stories. My students are not supporting characters in my story. I am one in theirs.

Teaching is not like having a summer internship where you blog about what having a job is like so that all of your college friends know. No, teaching is an actual profession–one I have an immense amount of respect for, and it seems detrimental to blog about things that I will certainly get wrong, certainly misrepresent.

I am a critical person who loves to work in nuance. But I’ve found that people often think that being supportive and being critical are opposite actions. They are not. Sometimes I support people by being critical. I know very few people who are publicly critical of the people they work for. None of us work for perfect employers. But, part of being a professional, I think, is being critical privately when you can. (There are notable exceptions to this, of course. I’m not advocating against public demonstrations like striking and rallies, but I think you must attempt solving things with meetings before strikes and rallies.) I’ve made my bed with TFA. And now I must lay in it. And help to remake it if it’s not what I think it could be.

I think there is a magnificent pressure from the ed reform critic community placed on TFA corps members, many of whom are liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading young people, to blog critically about TFA so as to keep their liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading titles. I know I’ve felt this pressure. But as far as I know, there are no pressures on investment bankers to blog about their moral considerations in their jobs; there are no pressures for lawyers to blog about how their work has a much broader impact on society; there are no pressures for doctors to blog about how, if given adequate funding, they could save more lives (or, save one specific life).

I am learning how to be a professional now. I’m no longer some kid with a blog. There’s a steep learning curve here that I’m trying to understand. All of the stuff I’ve spent the past two years reading and learning about is now real. It’s like a corn maze. From up above, it all makes sense. From down below, it’s hard to know where you are going. And that’s not even a cry for help. I’ve already found some amazing mentors both in TFA and at my school. But it’s just to say that the professional world is not a term paper. There aren’t easy heroes and villains, or easy successes and failures, in my actual life.

One day, when I know more, when I have actual things to say again, I will take up my platform again, becoming a professional with a blog (like Gary Rubinstein himself is!). But until then, I’ll stick to teacher resource sharing sites and writing about things unrelated to my time in the classroom. Because what I need now is not ed reform critics to critique all of my lesson plans but classroom teachers who I know and trust who can help me develop my style as a professional educator.

Daily Roundup Saturday 8/3/2013

1. Maybe the best piece of education journalism I’ve read this weekend is this piece by Owen Davis. He attempts to synthesize all of the recent TFA-critic movements and to find common threads throughout them. A couple of the former corps members’ stories really resonated with me. For instance, Marie Levy-Pabst’s story was especially salient:

Another side of his argument finds expression in Marie Levey-Pabst, a 2004 TFA alumna who pursued women’s studies and anti-racist theory in college. Now a public-school teacher in Boston, she argued on Anthony Cody’s blog that TFA isn’t only unable to prepare its corps for the complex dynamics present when poor children of color receive a teacher who is, on average, whiter and more privileged than they. Worse, the program serves as a vehicle and expression of that privilege.

At Institute, she groaned at being assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Bacpack,” a standby of its genre that she had read multiple times. She asked if one introductory essay—indeed, any reading— could fully inoculate recruits from pernicious bigotries like colorblind racism and the white savior complex. Moreover, the cursory discussions left many of her fellow recruits “stuck on the idea that they aren’t racist,” precisely the danger of colorblind racism.

If you think this piece is too critical, Owen Davis also offers up some concrete solutions on his Tumblr. One solution that I hadn’t heard before involves recruiting high school seniors from low-income communities to become teachers:

As Matt Barnum, another critical TFA alum, has pointed out, TFA spends gobs of money on recruitment and training: about $38,000 per corps member. That’s enough to provide scholarships to low-income people who’d like to become teachers, and who’d be more likely to teach in their own neighborhoods. And that doesn’t include recruitment costs. 

2. Dr. Andre Perry writes at The Grio about the importance of hearing more black voices of innovation in education. He says black communities are often seen as the antagonist to narratives about education reform that have white, idealistic protagonists. Perhaps the best part is when he goes into the history of education of African Americans post-slavery. African Americans, once freed, had actually started to educate themselves:

However, upon the Freedmen’s survey of the educational terrain, officials found “native schools,” schools taught by ex-slaves, already in existence. The ex-slave’s thirst for education illustrates an essential principle in black education. Private and religious schools should always have a place in our quest for universal education because they exemplify some of the highest forms of self-reliance and determination. Evidence of self-reliance manifested in the establishment of schools reminds us that charter schools or vouchers are nothing new and they have a deep connection to black history.

3. Ashley Woods over at Huffington Post Detroit covers the White Entrepreneurial Guy Meme. For the life of me, I don’t understand why people like Jason Lorimer don’t take these kinds of criticisms more seriously. 

o-WHITE-ENTREPRENEURIAL-GUY-570

Reflections on Yelling Past Each Other

I.

In The Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver writes about the current state of political punditry:

The McLaughlin Group, of course, is more or less explicitly intended as slapstick entertainment for political junkies. It is a holdover from the shouting match era of programs, such as CNN’s Crossfire, that featured liberals and conservatives endlessly bickering with one another. Our current echo chamber era isn’t much different from the shouting match era, except that the liberals and conservatives are confined to their own channels, separated in your cable lineup by a demilitarized zone demarcated by the Food Network or the Golf Channel. This arrangement seems to produce higher ratings if not necessarily more reliable analysis.

Later, he cites a review of a bunch of political scientists by Philip Tetlock concerning how accurate these political scientists were in their predictions:

The experts in his survey–regardless of their occupation, experience, or subfield–had done barely any better than random chance, and they had done worse than even rudimentary statistical methods at predicting future political events.

II.

Yesterday, there were people with the Larouche PAC standing on the corner of the main street of my hometown collecting signatures that they said would help impeach Obama. The first time I drove past them, I was in a rush to get somewhere. When my family asked my opinion on the impeachers, I rolled my eyes and said, “Only in Springboro.” The second time I drove past them, I stopped to talk to them. I figured if they were going to be a butt to my jokes, the least I could do was listen to a five-minute pitch.

Turns out, the Larouche people and I have way more similarities in political philosophy than I would have thought. They, too, were angered with the American involvement in the Middle East. They, too, were worried about the NSA and the government treating American citizens as terrorists even before a terrorist act has been committed. In the end, we still disagreed. I don’t really think impeachment is the answer. But it’s now a little harder for me to pigeon-hole the Larouche people as wackos.

III.

In Chapter Two of Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough describes how the American public conception of poverty has fluctuated between two poles for the past century. In times of boom, the general consensus is that the there is something wrong with the poor–that they have been tested and come up lacking. In times of bust, the general consensus is that there is something wrong with the government and the system. The poor are only victims. Poverty could happen to anyone.

In short, these rotating ideas about poverty have a lot to do with historical moment and (perhaps) very little to do with the objective truth of the matter. And these ideas have affected the way we think about education–what its role should be. If the poor are somehow poor because of something they’ve done, our education system (this line of thinking goes) is working; it’s just that some people aren’t using that opportunity appropriately. If the poor are poor because of systems, the education system is probably one of the systems contributing to their poverty.

IV.

If you’ve had your ear to the ground in the field of education for a while, you know that it often seems like people are talking past one another. Nate Silver’s description of the echo chamber era extends to education. Very few people are listening to all of the thought leaders in education. (Say what you want, but both Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch are both thought leaders.) When the two sides of the debate do talk to one another, they usually do so to call into question the other’s authenticity or reputation (or call each other names). Then the opposing side gets to act like a righteous saint for a hot second; the offending side apologizes; and then the opposite happens within a couple of days.

Both sides exhibit the characteristics Nate Silver accuses pundits of having: a commitment to upholding their viewpoints. New information is simply used as fodder to attack the other side. Even when these arguments are packaged to seem nice and sweet, they often reveal a certain closed-mindedness.

V.

A couple weeks ago, a friend who is very critical of TFA asked to speak with me about TFA. He had some questions, he said. Because I’m a horrible person, I didn’t make good on my promise to talk to him until a couple days ago. But the conversation was very productive. He was asking some important questions:

  1. How can we elevate the entire teaching profession so that any teaching job is seen like the accomplishment of being accepted into TFA?
  2. How can we raise the consciousness of all new teachers so that all teachers feel like their job is a way to promote equality?
  3. How can we provide better support for all teachers so that they have the kinds of resources that will make them successful?
  4. How can we recruit the best of the best into the field of education even without using a problematic organization like TFA?

Perhaps, then, this is the promise of getting outside of our echo chamber. We can start asking and answering questions that matter.

On Joining

My mother and father are both incredibly entrepreneurial people. My father runs his own business. My mother, upon seeing a problem, which she can easily solve herself, just solves it. All through my middle and high school career she volunteered at the school. I remember her constantly taking on more responsibility, streamlining procedures and records to make teachers’ lives easier. I suspect this entrepreneurial spirit is what has led my parents for years to decry the ineffectiveness of meetings.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have railed against meetings. How they take too long. How nothing is accomplished. How the people who need to talk never do. And so it’s a little bit crazy to me that all my life, I have been a chronic joiner.

I join just about anything that has a meeting. In fact, the more meetings an organization has, the more likely I am to be a part of it. I love planning. I love speculating. I love dreaming up recruitment ideas. I love making lists of people to call. I love arguing about ideological points. I love the conflict.

I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography, Living for Change, and one of the things that keeps sticking out to me is her perspective on how organizations should be run. She stresses a “dialectical” approach to organization governance. She writes:

we must be wary of becoming stuck in ideas that have come out of past experiences and have lost their usefulness in the struggle to create the future. So over the years I have always kept my ears close to the ground, testing ideas in practice and listening closely to the grass roots for new questions that require new paradigms.

This is a beautiful way of talking about progress. One of my favorite English professors used to tell me that all life was conflict–one conflict after another. When you run out of conflicts, she’d say, you die. In Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century, Grace and her husband James write: “They [the people] must have come to the realization that there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land, and that humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest expression of human creativity.” To struggle well is the ultimate aim.

I join things because I like the struggle. When I started Students for Education Reform at Ohio University, the first people to sign on with me were people with whom, at the time, I had massive disagreements. At first, this was very hard, especially as we built a language in order to engage in those disagreements in a respectful, affirming way. But over time, we did. I never saw SFER at OU as something with an agenda. My vision for it was always that it be a place where people could safely and honestly discuss issues in education.

We didn’t pull punches. One week I invited the Students for Liberty (the liberatarian) organization to a meeting. While I sometimes talked about the benefits of the charter school movement in our meetings, I spent that night defending the importance of a traditional public education system. This friction was important as I continued to think about and refine my opinions on education.

I constantly sought out conversations with critics of Students for Education Reform. This, too, was incredibly difficult. There were many times when I simply vented my own rhetoric to friends who knew well enough to just let me finish. But over time, I was affected by the friends I developed in the critic community.

The fruit of all of this was developing a handful of wonderful critical thinkers at Ohio University who are able to think critically about arguments from both sides of the education debate.

Still, I often find myself on the receiving end of negative commentary about Students for Education Reform. But I know I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without it. For that reason, I refuse to “un”join.

I now find myself in a similar space with Teach for America. There are many people who assume they know me because of my identification with TFA. There are people who giggle sardonically to themselves when I do something too earnestly, too naively, too optimistically, or too idealistically.

But my favorite parts of TFA are the spaces where we are allowed to be dialectical. These spaces are few, but I love being able to challenge things and to ask a lot of questions. Because I know that there is not some future point where I will be a pedagogically perfect teacher and where I will have all of the “correct” opinions about education. Instead, I need to learn how to communicate with people who actively disagree with me in a way that allows me to learn from them. I would love TFA to create more spaces like that.

My frustrations with both SFER and TFA are of the same nature–that the struggle is not prioritized. We talk often about the lack of the silver bullet in education (even Waiting for Superman talks about it!), which is recognition of the first half of the Boggses quote from above. Not enough attention is give to the second point.

As we struggle, as we treat each other more as humans, we will begin to create processes, educations, and spaces that humanize people. That, in turn, will begin to solve many of the problems we are trying so desperately to solve by stepping all over each other now.

Beliefs Without Consequences

I’m currently reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography Living for Change. Grace Lee Boggs is an activist in Detroit. She and her husband Jimmy Boggs were important organizers in the 1960s during the unrest in Detroit caused by the Civil Rights Movement and Ms. Boggs stays active today.

In her autobiography, she has an entire chapter on her husband. The chapter is an amazing look at how a political-minded person with a heart for love can create real change. She writes:

…Jimmy was always taking care of others. If he looked out the window and saw someone trying to start his car, he was out there like a flash offering his help. He filled out income tax forms for people in the community and for his coworkers, white and black. They trusted him more than they trusted H&R Block and brought their friends and relatives to him. I especially recall Mike, an old Italian retiree with a throat ailment that made him barely audible. Playing the numbers was Mike’s only recreation. One year, after Jimmy had done his taxes, Mike concluded that Jimmy had the inside dope on which number would come out each day. Jimmy didn’t want to disillusion Mike because having someone to talk to every day obviously meant so much to him. So every evening until Mike died, he would call and they would go through the ritual of Jimmy telling him what number had come out that day and giving him a number to play tomorrow.

Jimmy was especially caring toward young people and elders. We watched three generations of young people grow up on Field Street, where we lived for more than thirty years. He called them “my girls” and “my boys,” kept track of how they were doing in school, and was always ready to help them with their homework or with advice about a summer job or how to get a student loan.

Today, I was registered to take the English certification exam in Michigan so that I would be able to teach English there. But I slept through the exam. I slept through the exam.

I was making plans to go out tonight when the Zimmerman verdict came in.

And it’s just… what am I doing? What am I doing that it’s okay that I slept through an exam? What am I doing that it’s okay that I spend my weekends trying not to think about anyone but myself?

TFA really pushes us to create a sense of urgency in the classroom. If my students feel that every lesson I teach is the most important thing they have ever learned, then they will be hooked. That’s the goal. And I guess I’m coming to the realization that my life lacks any sense of urgency. I slept through an exam this morning. Who does that? If I really believe that the world needs changing, then what am I doing about it?

Grace Lee Boggs writes elsewhere:

I never ceased to envy and marvel at the fluency with which Jimmy wrote and the speed with which his pen would travel from the left side of the page to the right. When he came home from work, he would lie down on his stomach on the living room floor with a yellow pad and start writing. He would wake up mornings and dash off letters to the editor before breakfast.

That’s the kind of urgency I want. I’m tired of beliefs without consequences.